From making a football out of rags to his famous tears in 1966
13 April ~ I went to the new musical Eusébio: A Hymn To Football with some misgivings. It had all the makings of a schmaltz-fest – the life of the Benfica legend set to music? And/or it would be hamstrung by amateurishness; the short run was, I feared, a bad sign. (It’s on in Lisbon until April 16, then in Porto for three days in May.) In the event, I left Lisbon’s Coliseu concert hall roused, moved and uplifted in roughly equal measure.
At the outset the stage has a section of the stand of the Estádio da Luz, with a small group of Benfiquistas watching a game in the present day – a handful of teenagers, but also a grandfather with his grandson. It’s through the old man that the fans – and the show – travel back through time to pick out the high points of a life well-lived.
Eusébio as an adult never appears, leaving it to third-person narrative to describe his feats. But as we go back to his humble youth in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique, we see him as a little boy, making a football out of rags; the boy will return at strategic points in the story, symbolising the grown-up Eusébio – a subtle and touching conceit that works really well. Later, the locals speak of his gifts as a player, and two suits from Benfica turn up to negotiate the first contract with his astute mother, Elisa (“It’s a big family,” she tells them).
Once in Portugal, Eusébio keeps in touch by letter (“I can’t describe how cold this land is. Better times will come – I have faith in God.”). Benfica’s Hungarian coach Bela Guttman sees him in training: “This boy’s gold!” Eusébio scores two to help Benfica win their second European Cup, 5-3 against Real Madrid – projected onto the backdrop.
There are less well-known stories, too: Benfica are beating União de Almeirim 8-0 in the cup in 1968-69. Benfica get a penalty. Eusébio already has a hat-trick. The goalkeeper asks him not to score and humiliate him anymore because his father’s watching. Eusébio tells him which side he’s going to put the ball and the keeper saves it.
But the centre-piece of the show is 1966, which made Eusébio (“There wasn’t a country in the world that didn’t know his name.”), especially against North Korea at Goodison. The game is seen from four points-of-view: a father and son watching on TV in Portugal, Eusébio’s family in Mozambique, two Portuguese TV commentators and, unfortunately, two North Korean commentators with dodgy hair, gestures and gobbledegook commentary for comic effect – they get very animated when their team go 3-0 up, but then Eusébio turns it around with four goals in the 5-3 win. It’s a long but very dynamic scene that’s pivotal in Eusébio’s career, and in the show.
On to the England semi, and another grandfather and grandson now watching, with the game projected on the backdrop but only the final minutes, by which time the grandfather is resigned to the defeat and slopes off-stage while Eusébio famously leaves the Wembley pitch bathed in tears. The cast come out and sing a tribute to O Rei and the little boy wanders around to stand in front of each of them. Eusébio has touched everyone, the scene is saying, but at the same time it shows him, through the boy, wondering humbly how he could have had such an effect on people.
To cap the 1966 adventure there’s a phenomenal, spine-tingling version of the national anthem (which is never less than stirring anyway), belted out by the whole cast and in descant by the excellent Sofia Escobar, nominated for an Olivier Award for West Side Story.
Eusébio’s later years are skimmed over (except for his contribution, with advice, to Ricardo’s penalty save and spot kick against England in 2004) and we come to his death, beautifully and subtly portrayed by the little boy sitting silently in a spotlight that slowly fades to black. If I, a grown man and not Portuguese, and not a Benfiquista, was crying my eyes out, then I can almost guarantee there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (certainly not, I’m sure, from Eusébio’s widow, Flora, and daughter, Sandra, both in the audience).
It’s a terrific show with great pace, humour, colour and sensitivity, some excellent songs and music (the scenes set in Africa are especially good in this respect) and a not-over-exaggerated sense of the importance of Eusébio to Portuguese (and world) football. I’m aware that not many, if any, will be in a position to take advantage of my recommendation, but anyway: Eusébio – Um Hino Ao Futebol is very highly recommended indeed. Phil Town